Mark Tobey, “Untitled,” 1971

Students in Prof. Siddons’ “Art Since 1960” class had the chance this spring to write about a work of art from the OSUMA collection, featured in the exhibition, “Sharing a Journey.” The assignment entailed looking at a work of art for at least 45 minutes, and to write about their close-looking experience, followed by interpretation. Allison Christian and Michelle Holman wrote about Mark Tobey’s Untitled from 1971. The following text was excerpted from their paper by graduate teaching assistant Michelle Rinard.

Untilted is a lithograph print featuring five different colors done separately by five different lithographic plates, presumably drawn with a litho crayon. Visually it appears as if yellow was printed first, overlaid with red, blue, grey, and finally black. Blue appears to be presented most prominently in bundles compared to the other colors. When examining the piece there is a different effect while viewing up close than there is when viewing from far away.

Mark Tobey (American, 1890-1976). "Untitled," 1971. Lithograph, 26 1/4 x 18 3/4 in (image). Gift of Smith and Nancy Holt, 07-0012.

Mark Tobey (American, 1890-1976). “Untitled,” 1971. Lithograph, 26 1/4 x 18 3/4 in (image). Gift of Smith and Nancy Holt, 07-0012.

While looking from a farther distance it is easier for the eye to group colors together in forms. We noticed that the colors seem to resemble a landscape or even a crowd of people due to the black overlay. From the center left to right top and bottom corners, the line work is much more organic. By organic, we mean mainly circles, squiggles, and a few lines.

Based on previous knowledge we have about Mark Tobey, he is known for playing up Asian calligraphy; however the only aspect that resembles calligraphy in this piece is the pen’s line work which is not necessarily being used for the creation of words. Due to this, it is evident that each mark is made with extreme intent and attention to detail. To a random passerby in the gallery the image may seem simple, but to a more trained eye such as that of another artist this piece assumes a new appreciation by the viewer.

An intricate part of the design is Tobey’s use of color. Noted earlier, the colors seem to be in bundles. Blue is the most prominent when the viewer steps back, but when up close it does not seem to be as organized. The colors are laid in a traditional print making fashion from light to dark. Yellow is the first color, plate two is red, plate three is blue, plate four is grey, and plate five is black. Due to the top laying of grey and black it is hard to decipher if the lighter colors underneath form any intentional shapes that the eye would cognitively recognize. It should also be mentioned that the yellow and red overlay create orange; the yellow and blue overlay create green; and the red and blue overlay create purple. The colors that are created by the overlays are all secondary colors. Perhaps, there is a purpose of these color combinations, or perhaps Tobey just liked the way it looked. Sometimes unintentional creations lead to unexpected rewards.

Tobey could be pulling inspiration from the landscape that surrounds him as the lines and other shapes create a topographical effect almost as if looking at some form of a map. The line work in the top and bottom left of the piece resemble Jasper Johns’ “Crosshatch” prints and paintings which lead to the fact that this piece includes inspiration from abstract modernism. As the organic and crosshatching forms appear to be merging, it is hard to view this piece as a landscape. The interacting of these shapes seems to create more of a distorted grid effect. This demonstrates the postmodern era.

Tobey juxtaposes the idea of a line and a circle in order to challenge the viewer to make a connection between the organic and the geometric. On a broader scale, it seems the artist is challenging the idea of the grid, and the viewer’s ability to find meaning in a disrupted grid.

Read student Zach Miller’s research into Mark Tobey’s untitled lithograph in an earlier blog post.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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